Breaking Down Paul George’s Defense
by Tim Sartori on December 30, 2013 at 1:16 pm
Paul George has a reputation as one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. He gets copious praise for his ability to shut down players, even those who don’t play his position. With a well-above-average height and wingspan for his position (6’9” and nearly 7’, respectively) he has the prototype body for a lockdown defensive player, ala Scottie Pippen.
I decided to take a look at where this reputation is coming from and, in particular, what areas of defense he excels in. Using Synergy’s advanced stats, paired with gifs for further explanation, I broke down George’s entire defensive game (using stats from both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons for sample size), detailing how he has guarded players in isolation, pick and roll, spot-up, and off-screen situations.
Paul finished the 2012-13 season ranked 109th in defending isolations, per mySynergy, but only gave up only 0.76 points per possession. Also worth noting: his opponents shot a stunning 9.0% on 3-point shots in isolation against him.
On the plays I looked at, he was still a bit laterally slow, perhaps still growing into his body. But the video shows that he improved by leaps and bounds throughout the season, as was evident when he did a great job guarding LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Watch in the below GIF as he wisely gives LeBron a couple of feet of room, tempting him to take the jump shot while he retains the ensure he has the extra quarter-second to react when LeBron drives. Drive James does, and while George doesn’t move quickly enough to cut off the penetration he does stay with him enough to prevent LeBron from getting off a clean release (with a little help from Hibbert, but still).
So far in the 2013-14 season, George is ranked 23rd in defending isolations in terms of points allowed per possession. His lateral quickness has increased to a point that, combined with his length, he is really a matchup nightmare even for quick, elite wings. Despite the small sample size (12-of-40 field goals), he is giving up only 0.68 points per possession in isolations — a very impressive figure.
Paul has no problem giving plenty of room to shooters he doesn’t respect. Even to above-average shooters, he can sag off a little because his long arms allow him to still contest the shot. As mentioned, this extra quarter-second is critical in helping George get to spots before the player he is guarding.
Check out these examples of him forcing two elite offensive players, James Harden and Dwayne Wade, into very tough shots. Even with each initiating some contact, George is able to disrupt what they wanted to do (Harden hates shooting midrange jumpers) and contest the attempt.
Defending Pick-and-Roll Ball Handlers
It is difficult to measure individual defense by looking at “defense-against-pick-and-roll-ball-handler” statistics because teams have different philosophies for defending the play. Depending on the strategy — which can vary according to the offensive players involved or where the action occurs on the court — the two defenders directly involved can have different responsibilities. And no matter the philosophy involved, both defenders are relying on one another, and their other three teammates, to do their jobs.
As for Indiana, especially in the 2012-13 season, they would almost always just have George fighting over the screens for shooters he respected — as he does in the top GIF with Rudy Gay, who gets into the lane and scores — or going under them and daring the ball handler to take the shot, as shown below when he goes under the screen for Iguodala, who pulls up and misses the jumper.
When it comes to sideline pick and rolls, many teams elect a defensive strategy called ”ice.” That is, they don’t allow ball handler to use the pick to attack the middle of the court but instead send them baseline, away from the pick, where the defender guarding the screener can prevent penetration until the ball handler’s defender recovers.
This isn’t a common method used by Indiana, but watch here as Paul forces Kyrie Irving away from the screen to the baseline, denying him from getting into the lane. Hibbert, however, is overly concerned with a potential pick and pop from Tyler Zeller so he doesn’t sink down low enough to contain Kyrie, who hits the tough shot.
This play notwithstanding, Indiana’s scheme was good enough in 2012-13 to keep opponents to 0.78 points per possession on pick-and-roll situations when Paul George was defending the ball handler, per mySynergy.
This season, Paul has been ever better, allowing only 0.66 points per possession and 34.2% shooting when defending pick-and-roll ball handlers. This has been good for a league-wide ranking of 33rd in this category.
The Pacers still look a bit disorganized at times defending this play, and George often gets caught on his man’s back when he lets him into the lane, but his effort to recover combined with his length and quickness (and we can’t forget Hibberts size and great defense helping out) makes it really tough for opponents even when he gets out of position.
See here, for example, as he chases Harden around the screen and ends up on his back, but still has the length to bother him and force the miss.
Getting caught behind his opponent remains a bit of an problem though, and he’s lucky he has Hibbert helping out because his ranking would surely be a bit lower without him.
Check out these two instances of George getting caught behind his man and allowing good penetration into the middle of the floor:
Defending Spot-Up Shooters
Paul excels in defending the spot-up shot, and it’s really no secret why – he’s long, tall and quick, and therefore can affect shooters even when he is late to close out.
Last season he gave up 0.9 points per possession on spot ups, and he’s doing roughly the same this season, having his league-wide rank hover around the 90th mark. But considering that over half of the spot-up shots he closes out are three-point shots, 0.9 points per possession is nothing to laugh at.
In the 2012-13 season, his opponents connected on 34.6% of the three-point spot up shots that he was defending. This season, they’ve connected on 38.0% (but with a far smaller sample size).
See here, for example, as he can afford to help one pass away off Manu, and still be able to close out strongly and force the miss.
George needs to watch himself in these situations, however.
He cannot cheat and over help. He is usually guarding the opponent’s best wing scorer and the last thing he needs to do is let that guy get going by watching a three-ball tickle the twice. Here, for example, George loses focus on the true priority and sinks too far to help deny a pass to a cutting Kenyon Martin. The alternate is much more of a threat, as Carmelo is able to catch a swing pass and get off a good look from three.
Fortunately for Indiana, Anthony misses. George is so long that he is still able to at least offer a token contest, but Vogel would have much rather seen Martin try to do something with the ball 15 feet from the hoop than let Carmelo get a look like this.
Defending Players Off Screens
Defending shots off screens is all about effort and basketball IQ. Nobody is doubting George’s effort, but there’s a reason that his opponents connected on a whopping 45.0% of their three-point shots off screens with him defending in the 2012-13 season, per mySynergy, and that reason is that he’s still learning.
Last season, Paul loved to cheat over the top of screens, making him vulnerable to his opponents flaring out and getting open looks. Here is a prime example, as he tries to cheat under an Al Jefferson screen, which Randy Foye wisely recognizes as he flares out and gets a fairly open look.
And here is George doing it again, cheating even worse this time and giving J.J. Reddick — of all people — a wide-open three.
This season, despite the small sample size, he has been much better.
His opponents have connected on only 30.0% of field goals, and 31.6% of three-point shots off screens with him defending, which works out to 0.73 points per possession and ranks him 11th in league in this category.
So what has caused this jump?
Sample size is obviously a part of it, as opponents have only attempted 19 three-point shots off screens with him defending this year, but he has also been far more alert as to when the screen is coming, and is chasing good shooters through the screens more often than he did last season.
Here’s a good example, as he chases Harden through the screen and gets out to contest the shot:
Harden hits the three anyway. George seemed more worried about a drive than a shot, took a less-than-ideal angle to bother the release and also contested the lefty’s shot with the wrong hand. But he was alert to what was a tricky back screen and managed to at least get his hand up.
Final Thoughts of George’s Defense
Paul George is a very good defensive player (what’s new, right?). He’s above average in the four main areas and is only going to get better with more experience in, for example, learning when and when it’s not OK to fight through screens. He will also surely improve at making split-second decisions on the defensive end.
He has to carry a big part of the offensive load, so for him to put this much intensity and energy into his defensive game is testimony to how hard he works. Also, if all the Pacers players would more consistently and completely use the same philosophy when defending the screen and roll, that would make the team — and its best player — even better defensively.
When you consider that the Indiana Pacers are already the best defensive team in the NBA, that seems pretty scary.